Question: I am a little confused as to when the Babylonian exile began and ended. Did the seventy years prophesised by Jeremiah begin whith the destruction of the Temple? What were the years of the exile (from when to when)? When Daniel refers to the destruction in his prayer in Daniel 9, how many more years of exile were left to be accomplished?
Answer: That is a great question. The Talmud in tractate Megilla discusses at length this very issue. As we will see, while the final answer is clear, there were a number of people of made serious errors in the calculation of the 70 years. In order to understand the chronology of events, a timeline is helpful:
(All dates are BCE)
605 – Ascension of Nebuchadnezzar to the throne of Babylonia
604- Nebuchadnezzar subdues Jehoiakim and Judea becomes a vassal state to Babylonia
597- Jehoiachin (successor to Jehoiakim) along with the scholars and upper class of society are exiled to Babylonia. This the first wave of exile of Babylonia.
586 – Destruction of First Temple
536 – Belshazzar errs and believes the 70 years have passed without salvation
534 – Cyrus conquers Babylonia and allows Jews to begin returning to Israel and re-building Temple, but recants the permission
529 – Achashverosh errs and believes the 70 years of exile have passed without salvation
517 – First year of reign of Darius II —Daniel prays to G-d for salvation
516 – Second year of Darius II - allows the Jews to complete the rebuilding of the Temple
Two caveats are in order regarding the above timeline:
a) I have used the year 586 B.C.E as the year of the destruction of the Temple. This is the year accepted by most historians. There is an opinion (based upon various Rabbinical sources) that the date should be 423 or 422 BCE. This discrepancy is the source of much discussion and conjecture, and outside the purview of this discussion. As mentioned, for the sake of simplicity, I have set the date accepted by most historians of 586 BCE.
b) The year I have set for Cyrus’ ascension to the throne is based the Talmud’s timeline of events. Many historians place the event about 3 years prior. Some of the other events are possibly a year off from many historians’ accounts.
Now we can being the analysis. As can be seen, in the final analysis, the 70 years of exile are counted beginning from the destruction of the Temple. Exactly 70 years later, the Second Temple was built. However, that starting point and ending point were not at all clear at the time. There were two basic areas of confusion which led to errors regarding the beginning and end of the exile:
a) What is the beginning of the exile? As we can see, there are four possible choices:
(1) The ascension of Nebuchadnezzar to the throne (605)
(2) Judea becomes a vassal state to Babylonia (604)
(3) First wave of exile (597)
(4) Destruction of the Temple (586)
b) The second area of confusion, and I won’t go into detail here, regards the counting of the years of the monarchs. Years of monarchs are always recorded in full years (so and so ruled for 40 number of years) even if his reign was not a full year (as he may have reigned only 39 1/2 years). Therefore, simply adding the number of years a succession of monarchs ruled
may very well result in an error of calculation. Say one king rules for 25 years and the second for 16 years. Its quite possible that only 40 years have passed since each only ruled for 1/2 in their final year. However, counting the years of succession yields the mistaken figure of 41. As we will see, some made errors counting of years of reign, not taking into account the overlapping years of rule. We will call this the “Error of Succession”.
Now, there were three people who made error regarding the exile:
a) In 536, Belshazzar believed the exile had ended. He believed the exile began when Nebuchadnezzar arose to the throne since that was the beginning of the end of the Judean Kingdom. Further, he made a one year “Error of Succession”. Thus he believed 70 years had passed, and no salvation had come for the Jews. He therefore believed G-d had abandoned the Jews and as a result, the Talmud relates, used the Holy vessels of the Temple. For this desecration, Belshazzar was punished.
b) In 529, Achashverosh believed the 70 years had passed. He believed the exile began with the first exile in 597. Further, he made a two year “Error of Succession”, and thus believed, like Belshazzar, that G-d had abandoned the Jews. He thus felt brazen enough to make use of the Holy vessels of the Temple, believing he would not be punished. He too erred and was punished.
c) In 517, Daniel believed the 70 years had passed. He correctly understood that the exile actually began with the destruction of the Temple, the final blow. However, he made a one year “Error of succession”. Distraught at the thought that G-d had not answered the Jewish people as He had promised, he prayed to G-d for salvation (as you note, found in Daniel chapter 9). In fact, he was one year off.
As is clear, in the final analysis the Jews were redeemed 70 years after the destruction of the first Temple, which in fact marked the beginning of the exile. However, there is one more interesting point. The Talmud notes that one verse seems to indicate the exile should begin when Babylonia achieves power (and not from the destruction of the Temple). The Talmud explains that in some sense, there were two 70 year exile periods. The main period of exile was, as explained, from the destruction, to the completion of the rebuilding of the Second Temple. The second time-frame began when Judea became a vassal state to Babylonia (in 604), which in effect marked the beginning of the exile which ultimately culminated with the destruction of
the Temple. That time-frame ends in 534 (70 years), when Cyrus allows the Jews to begin rebuilding the Temple which marks the beginning of the redemption—although it took another 19 years before they could complete it.
I hope this explanation provides some clarity into the dates and seminal events of the 70 year exile. If you have any follow-up questions please feel free to respond.
Rabbbi Yoel Spotts
I wanted to thank you for your detailed and thorough response, I learned a lot from it. I did have a follow up question however:
Did the 70 years of exile that took place because of the violated Sabbath and Jubilee years begin from the destruction of the first Temple and end with the rebuilding of the second Temple? Or did the 70 years to make up for the violated years end with the return of the exiles by Cyrus, 18 years prior to the rebuilding of the second Temple?
Thank You Very Much.
My understanding is that the 70 years which were intended to “make up” for the Sabbatical and Jubilee years are from the destruction of the first Temple until the actual complete construction of the Second Temple.
Rabbi Yoel Spotts